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rooster music: the first 2000 years (part 1)

While in New Orleans last month, I picked up a paperback copy of Dave Marsh’s 1988 book, The Heart of Rock & Soul (Da Capo Press, 1999, 717 pages, $19.95), which is subtitled "The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made." I’d had major disagreements with some of Marsh’s opinions in the past, but once I started thumbing through the book I couldn’t put it down.

Despite the inclusion of some modern records of questionable lasting value from the likes of Madonna, Gloria (gag!) Gaynor, Culture Club, Klymaxx, etc., the heart of The Heart is soul, R&B and rock’n’roll recorded in the ’50s and ’60s. Songs #1, 2 and 3 are by Marvin Gaye ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine"), Chuck Berry ("Johnny B. Goode") and James Brown ("Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag").

As Marsh openly acknowledges, no such list can really be definitive or absolute — he frankly admits that his top 250 choices could easily be reversed with no lasting damage to the object of the book. And that object is essentially to stimulate discussion (or argument if you prefer) over what makes a great single. And art. And soul. And rock’n’roll.

If that was indeed the goal, it certainly set me to thinking. Coming up with 1001 singles (and something intelligent to say about each) is a daunting task. But I figured that I should be able to come up with, say, at least 101 songs (I couldn’t limit myself to singles) that would demonstrate the essence of what I call Rooster Music: the blend of blues, R&B, "lost" soul and gospel that I’ve been playing on my radio shows for about 20 years.

So over the next several issues — as part of our 10th anniversary/new millennium celebration — we’ll be delving into those 101 selections. Don’t get hung up on the numerical order: It doesn’t mean much except that’s how they came to me as I was writing.

One caveat at the start: This won’t be a "greatest blues songs of all time" list. If you’re looking for something like that, I’d suggest any of numerous collections we’ve reviewed in these pages. Along with a couple that are listed under "Various Artists" in this issue’s New Releases column, you may want to check out two Smithsonian box sets: The Blues, a set of classic blues singers, and Mean Old World: The Blues From 1940 to 1994. Also recommended is MCA’s three-disc set Blues Classics and their four-CD Chess Blues. For a wider view, try Rhino’s Blues Masters series, now up to Volume 18.

Instead, these are performances that over the years have moved me, ones that I keep coming back to when I want music that touches me way down deep. In many cases I’ve passed over obvious choices by well-known artists in favor of that obscure gem you might be likely to miss. In any event, they’re personal selections made in the hope that we can share the same musical wavelength.

1. "Reap What You Sow," Otis Rush
Mourning in the Morning, Atlantic/Cotillion (recorded 1969)

When Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites wanted to record Chicago blues great Otis Rush, they picked Rick Hall’s Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as the place to do it. Producer Hall had achieved great success with Jimmy Hughes ("Steal Away"), Clarence Carter ("Steal Away") and Wilson Pickett ("Hey Jude"). In this case Bloomfield and Gravenites (who both co-wrote the song with Paul Butterfield) assumed the producers’ role. While Bloomfield isn’t credited with playing any instruments, they did bring in a young slide guitar fellow by the name of Duane Allman to complement Rush and Fame regular Jimmy Johnson.

Along with Hall’s crack session men Barry Beckett (keyboards) and Roger Hawkins (drums), there were Jerry Jemmott on bass, Mark Naftalin on piano and a full horn section.

The song sets a doomy tone from the start, with chiming guitars and piano leading into Otis’ impassioned vocal, warning the woman who’s walking out on him that "there’s going to be judgment in the morning, baby / You’re gonna reap for what you sow." The sound is full and rich, with a crying tenor sax echoing the vocal lament and various guitars going every which way.

Weighing in at just under five minutes, it’s a modern blues masterpiece. It’s also the most often played version of any song on Blues From the Red Rooster Lounge. (This pick dedicated to the memory of George Myers.)

2. "Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground," Blind Willie Johnson
The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia Legacy (recorded 1927)

With the possible exception of Rev. Gary Davis, Johnson was unparalleled at mixing the blues into religious music. Possessed of a bullfrog voice, he was content on "Dark Was the Night" to simply moan along in accompaniment to his unearthly slide guitar. Samuel Charters recalls listening to the song in 1948 when it "was so different from anything else that we knew about that it didn’t even seem to come from any world we could recognize."

After a highly contentious session in a daily workshop on race relations at the annual Common Ground symposium, Walter Liniger and Scott Ainslie asked me to come in and open the next class meeting by playing this song for them. Almost no one there had ever heard it before and they listened with signs of obvious awe. Everyone got along real well that day.

3. "The Messiah Will Come Again," Roy Buchanan
Buch and the Snakestretchers, GENES/Adelphi (recorded 1971)

A modern counterpart to Blind Willie’s gospel fusion. Originally released on the BIOYA Sound label (BIOYA being the acronym for a rather rude expression), this lo-fi recording was made live at a Maryland roadhouse. I still have the original LP that came in a burlap bag. The song’s spoken introduction is barely audible, but the intensity of Roy’s weepy guitar playing breaks through the fog and transforms the inaudible into the ineffable. It sounds like something that’s been buried deep in your subconscious forever.

Roy recorded several other incarnations of Messiah, including a crisp studio version on his self-titled debut for Polydor. But this one — if you’re lucky enough to find it — is the realest deal I’ve heard.

4. "Even Now," Johnny Adams
Man of My Word, Rounder (recorded 1998)

Adams recorded so many great songs in his 40-year recording career that began in 1959 with "I Won’t Cry" (a tune that could have easily made this list, along with "Reconsider Me" — to name only two), but there’s something especially poignant about this track that leads off his final album, recorded when he knew he was dying of cancer. David Egan and Buddy Flett’s terrific composition is an adult look at a rocky relationship, and Adams oh-so-knowingly wraps himself around it like the master he was.

5. "I’m Gonna Murder My Baby," Pat Hare
Sun Records: The Blues Years 1950–1956, Charly R&B (UK) (recorded 1954)

6. "I’m Gonna Kill That Woman," John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker Sings Blues, King (recorded 1949)

Political correctness has rarely reared its head in the blues, and there was certainly no place for it in the urban blues of the ’50s. Violence, misogyny and all-around low living are, if not glorified, at least amply represented in music that reflected the lives and surroundings of its makers. This was never more apparent than in the case of Auburn "Pat" Hare, who in 1962 murdered his girlfriend and a policeman and spent the last 16 years of his life in jail.

Hare got plenty of session work at Sun Records in Memphis, backing James Cotton (that’s his legendary guitar solo on "Cotton Crop Blues") and numerous others, and toured with Junior Parker before joining the Muddy Waters Band. After doing the session with Cotton in May 1954, he got to step out front on "Murder My Baby." The lyrics have a man explaining to a judge and jury what he’s about to do because his woman "don’t do nothin’ but cheat and lie." Beyond the bizarre circumstances of Hare’s life, what recommends this track is his wild, distorted guitar playing. There are, incidentally, at least two takes circulating, and the one here has by far the more psychotic guitar break than what you’ll find on Rhino or Rounder reissues. There are also fine versions by Robert Nighthawk (as "Going Down to Eli’s") and Johnny Winter (as "Murderin’ Blues).

Less notorious is the number Hooker recorded for Joe Van Battle in Detroit in 1949. But that’s only because John Lee was able to reign in his homicidal tendencies (at least so far as we know). This one is perhaps even more frightening in its overall sound. His voice is deeper, more ominous, and the primal beat, kept by his stomping foot and doubled by the guitar, is threatening in its insistence. There’s anguish in every note, and it’s clear that his guy is at the very end of his tether and can only hope for God’s forgiveness: "Kill that woman / Fall down on my knees." If you didn’t know who you were listening to, it would be easy to believe that this is the work of a serial killer who just stopped in to cut a record on his lunch hour.

Murder songs (derived from English folk balladry) have a rich history in the mountain music of the southeastern U.S. and are still occasionally performed by bluegrass artists. I’ve heard lots of them, but none are nearly as scary as what Hooker and Hare waxed just five years apart.

7. "You Can Think Twice," Irma Thomas
The Way I Feel, Rounder (recorded 1988)

Sounds like it ought to be a late-’50s stroll tune, with Craig Wroten’s insistent piano figure. Irma, so often the wronged woman in her songs, is ready to give that sucker the boot this time. Compared to the pair above, she’s downright civilized about it, but that doesn’t mean she’s not pissed. And if he thinks she’ll miss all the heartaches when she walks out that door for the final time, well …

Irma, with her husky-sweet voice, always seems so effortless as she lets loose with powerful blasts of soul. Her second CD for Rounder is consistently good from top to bottom and helped to re-launch her career.

8. "Hell Hound on My Trail," Robert Johnson
King of the Delta Blues Singers, Columbia (recorded 1937)

We’re not out of the dark yet. When you makes a pact with the devil, you gots to pay the price. This particular demon dog chased restless Bob to his early grave. Beyond that, who’s to say?

Keith Richards says that when he first heard Johnson’s playing he thought, "This guy must have three brains!"

9. "It Won’t Be Very Long," The Soul Stirrers
Jesus Gave Me Water, Specialty (recorded 1952)

Salvation at last. Paul Foster is singing a nice controlled lead on this gospel gem with the other vocalists providing a rhythmic response, when suddenly an angel flies into the studio. Sam Cooke’s high tenor shoots the proceedings heavenward as he and an inspired Foster trade choruses until the ending comes all too soon. Solid proof that Cooke was merely toying with us in his career as a pop singer.

10. "Gambler’s Blues," B.B. King
How Blue Can You Get? Classic Live Performances 1964 to 1994, MCA (recorded 1966)

Recorded live in a Chicago nightclub, this track first appeared on Blues Is King on ABC/Bluesway, one of the great unsung LPs of all time. The instrumental intro alone is worth the price of admission. All trebly, single-note genius, this is the style that launched a thousand careers. None of ’em could deliver a song like ol’ B., though.

11. "Sit Down and Cry," Aretha Franklin
Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings (recorded 1969)

Tacked on the end of 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You LP, if "Sit Down and Cry" got any airplay I sure missed it. Hearing Irma Thomas’ sterling version made me take notice when Aretha’s original appeared on this 1992 box set. It starts off with just her piano and inimitable wailing of "Baaaaa-by …" before the band of Muscle Shoals vets (transplanted to New York for the session) and a chorus that includes Cissy Houston and Dee Dee Warwick join in. This unpretentious evocation of pure heartache with strong gospel roots is what great soul is all about.

12. "Wes Cide Bluz," Jimmy Dawkins
kant sheck dees bluze, Earwig (recorded 1991)

Before he entered the world of odd, alternative spelling, Jimmy cut the definitive rendition of this buzzsaw guitar instrumental as "Sounds of the West Side" in 1982 on Jimmy and Hip: Live for the long-defunct Rumble Records. The studio remake has actual lyrics about "waitin’ for you to come on back," but it’s the paint-peeling guitar work that keeps us coming back. The late Professor Eddie Lusk chimes in with a nice organ solo, but this is Dawkins’ show.

13. "Just Memories," Luther Allison
Where Have You Been? Live in Montreux 1976–1994, Ruf (recorded 1984)

Luther is rightfully remembered for his tremendously energetic fret work, but he was a powerful singer — and never more so than on this live recording from the 1984 Montreux Jazz Festival, a special event that was co-produced by Jerry Wexler, featuring the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. (Coincidence that they appear again on this list? I’m starting to think not. These guys simply knew how to play with soul.)

I first heard this years ago on a bootleg tape of festival highlights. This was at a time when Allison was living in France and had long been out of the American blues spotlight. My immediate thought was, "Did they bring Otis Redding back from the dead to make it really special?" Noooo … that’s Luther, sans guitar, giving it every ounce he’s got.

14. "Dearest Darling," Bo Diddley
His Best, MCA/Chess (recorded 1958)

Time to pick up the tempo after all these slow tunes.

How many blues or R&B artists have a beat named after them? Then again, how many of them had anyone — let alone Jerome "Bring It to Jerome" Green — playing maracas? If you said "Bo Diddley," congratulations. Go pick yourself out a lovely red tartan plaid sport jacket from our wonderful selection of prizes.

Bo had much better known hits — maybe we’ll even get to one or two of them later on — but none get my feet tappin’ or my seat movin’ like this one. He rips into this one without regard for his tonsils. And the lyrics have a simplistic but humorous charm, to wit:

"If I get to heaven and you’re not there / I’m gonna write your name on the heavenly stair / If you’re not there by judgment day / Then I’ll know, baby, you went the other way."

15. "Louisiana Blues," Muddy Waters
His Best, 1947 to 1955, MCA/Chess (recorded 1950)

I’ve listened to so many Muddy tunes so many times that it’s difficult to remember the way I felt the first time I heard McKinley Morganfield a.k.a. Muddy Waters, the 1971 collection of his early Chess hits. Every damn song was so deep, so true and just so plain good. "So this was what all those Brit-blues and blues-rock guys were trying to sound like!"

It seems almost ridiculous to pick just one of them, but I’ll go with this one on the basis of Muddy’s slide guitar, the nice loping beat, Little Walter’s harp and exhortation to "Take me wit’cha, man, when you go" down to New Orleans to pick up that mojo hand. Back then Louisiana was just a place on the map. Now I know what he was talking about. Back then, also, we couldn’t hear this in crisp, brilliantly remastered digital sound.


16. "You Hurt Me," Little Willie John
Fever: The Best of Little Willie John, Rhino (recorded 1960)

Little Willie John was so popular in the mid-’50s that label-mate James Brown (still one of his biggest fans) opened shows for him. Starting out as a 17-year-old, between 1955 and 1961 he cracked the R&B Top 10 seven times for King Records and made serious dents in the pop charts with hits like "Fever," "Talk to Me, Talk to Me" and "Sleep." His great recording of Titus Turner’s "All Around the World" made the song — better known to us now as "Grits Ain’t Groceries" — a blues perennial. "You Hurt Me" never approached that kind of success, but it is easily his bluesiest recording and, to my mind, his best. The unknown guitar player lays down a serious blues riff, and Willie just wails over the rhythm section.

By 1964 his career and life were in a downward spiral when he knifed and killed a much larger man in a fight. He died in prison at the age of 30.

17. "Maybe," Lou Ann Barton
Old Enough, Discovery (CD reissue on Antone’s) (recorded 1982)

Another one from Muscle Shoals, with the production help of none other than Jerry Wexler. Lou Ann’s combination of Texas twang — "May-ay-be if I hold your haynd / You will understaynd" — and pure emotionalism drives this teen-angst tale past the Chantels’ 1958 original. (No mean feat, that!) She’s easily believable as a would-be bad girl crying on her pillow.

18. "Down on Bending Knees," Johnny Copeland
Down on Bending Knees, Mr R&B (Sweden) (recorded 1963)

"Clyde" was still a scuffling blues and soul singer in Houston when he recorded this one for the Golden Eagle label. (He recorded an updated version for Rounder, reissued on the recent Honky Tonkin’.) Bass, drums and horns are about the only instrumentation you can hear, but that’s enough to frame the rasping plea for his woman to come back.

Johnny has a special place in my heart, dating from the time I interviewed him in 1991. He was a genuinely nice person who left it all on stage every time he played. There were times he reminded me of what Otis Redding might have been like if he’d played blues guitar.

19. "Oh Mary Don’t You Weep," Swan Silvertones
Swan Silvertones & Singin’ in My Soul, Vee Jay (recorded 1959)

20. "Oh Baby Don’t You Weep, Parts 1 & 2," James Brown
Roots of a Revolution, Polydor (recorded 1963)

As may already be apparent, I’m fascinated by the confluence of gospel, blues and R&B that spawned so much of the seminal music of the ’50s and ’60s. Artists like Ray Charles (a true pioneer), Aretha, Al Green, all broke down barriers between the sacred and the secular in popular music.

Perhaps less acknowledged in this aspect — in light of his many other accomplishments — was Mr. Hardest Working Man in Show Business himself, James Brown. But the line separating gospel from R&B was never as thin as on two of JB’s early-’60s hits, "Maybe the Last Time" (copped from the Staple Singers’ 1958 "This May Be the Last Time"), and "Oh Baby Don’t You Weep," originally a two-sided single for King Records.

Where most rock’n’roll treatments of gospel usually hopped up the rhythm from the original, Brown went the other way. In its spliced-together form, "Oh Baby" is a six-and-a-half-minute slow groove with James alternately rapping and screaming, punctuated by a Maceo Parker sax solo that repeats the vocal cries. The Famous Flames join in as the Amen Choir.

The Swans’ original version canters along by comparison. Over a tight harmony backing, leader Claude Jeter mixes verses about Mary, Martha and how "Pharaoh’s army got drowned in the Red Sea" with improvised lines about being "a bridge over deep water if you trust my name." Falsetto shrieks drive this classic to its stirring conclusion in under three minutes.


Rooster Alert: You can hear other choice slices of Rooster Music every week on the syndicated radio program Blues From the Red Rooster Lounge. If it's not available in your area, have your favorite station contact Red Rooster Radio Productions for a sample CD at (303) 443-7245.


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